The case for free college


(File Photo/The Daily Campus)

A college education serves numerous critical functions. It has long been recognized as a legitimate means of alleviating cyclical poverty and increasing class mobility. Individuals with college degrees are more likely to vote and be active in the community. Higher education benefits society as well; countries with educated populaces have better, more responsive governments. When a police officer considers abusing a citizen, or a representative considers taking a bribe, they must weigh the benefit of the action versus the likelihood it will be reported. In well-educated societies, citizens complain about these actions more and thus the actions are reduced significantly. Furthermore, in these societies, crime rates drop drastically and health improves.

In America, however, there is a significant socio-economic barrier to higher education; many Americans cannot afford tuition. Federal solutions to this problem have been bandage provisions at best (such as Pell grants), haphazardly applied to modest effect. Far too often, even if a student receives aid, they cannot afford the cost of college up front, and they must take out loans. At least 42 million Americans currently have federal student loans, amounting to over $1 trillion in debt. Additionally, there is evidence that most colleges, public and private, force recruitment efforts at richer, whiter schools, further exacerbating the class divide.

Public college (including community college) should be free for low income students and affordable for higher income students. It’s not as crazy as it sounds. The estimated total price of tuition at public colleges (after state subsidization) is around $75 billion. The federal government already spends a similar amount on its hodgepodge of grants and loans, with about a third of that money going to public universities. Repurposing this money to simply pay for tuition would cover part of the cost.

There are other ways to apportion money for this program. Bernie Sanders proposed funding his free college plan through a tax on stock trading speculation, which has already been implemented in numerous other countries. An internal Pentagon study recently found that their yearly budget should be cut by $125 billion– enough to pay for two years of public college tuition. Moreover, in the long run, this plan would pay for itself: entitlement programs will be less expensive to maintain as less families are stuck in poverty, prisons will be less crowded and the federal tax base will grow as the country develops a strong middle class.

Opponents of this idea argue that it is too expensive, that we do not need everyone to go to college, that the job market will be oversaturated and that private colleges will suffer. First, as detailed above, there is enough money to pay for this proposal. Second, the plan does not suggest that everyone should go to college; it simply promotes equal opportunity by removing the barrier of tuition. Third, critics that claim the job market will be oversaturated are acting on a self-preservationist instinct. They know their social class will be threatened when college, a tool long used to suppress class mobility, is no longer inaccessible to large swathes of the nation. Lastly, I am positive private colleges will not suffer enrollment deficits – elite families are not going to start sending their children to UConn en masse, even if Yale costs a quarter million dollars more.

Admittedly, this proposal would not be easy to implement. In order to make room and board affordable for low income students, high income students would have to pay modest tuition costs. Public colleges would have to be need-blind so they would not recruit a disproportionate number of high income students. States would have to buy in on some level, and partisanship could get in the way (although there are signs this may be changing). Undocumented students would likely not receive funding and the traditional obstacles to admission for poor high school students, especially students of color, would not be erased. The underlying issues within our public primary and secondary school systems need to be addressed as well.

Still, it is worth it. Investing in diversity and social mobility is worth a few hiccups; this plan will yield results far outstripping the financial and political costs.

Harry Zehner is a contributor for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at

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